As I tack onto this blog the reading of the last few weeks, we’re seeing the disgusting spectacle of the Dr. Seuss “cancellation” mob. I’m one of those who love old books, and seeking them out and eventually finding them can be as much fun as reading them. Increasingly, I find myself wondering if we will always be able to do that, though. Amazon giveth, but Amazon taketh away.
So, consider old books that have been important to you as something worth saving (or re-acquiring) for your offspring. You leave them what money you can to fuel their dreams and meet their needs, and leaving them influential, inspiring or flat-out entertaining books can do that too. Money’s always tight. The supply of important book titles may be, too, now.
Here’s what I’ve been into lately:
“Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” by Walter Mosley (1998) As good a storyteller as there’s ever been, this book was the debut for Mosley’s “Socrates Fortlow” character. Socrates is a middle-aged ex-con barely making ends meet in South Central L.A. When a young boy drifts across his path, he makes the long-shot decision to try and save him.
“The Sport of the Gods” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1901) Before TB took him in his early 30s, Dunbar was the most prolific, best-known African American poet and author of his time, This, one of his later, longer-form works, is the story of two families, the Hamiltons, who are black and work in domestic service, and the Oakleys, who are white, and their employers. What seems like an amiable arrangement goes very wrong very fast, and we see what prejudice (and pre-judging) does from both families’ perspectives. This superb classic is often compared to, but should not be confused with, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (see this blog for February 2020). Both deal in the subject of shame as a kind of punishment outside the laws of man.
“Hap” by Thomas Coffey (1981) A biography of General Henry A. “Hap” Arnold, one of the “fathers” of the modern U.S. Air Force, one of the Army’s original pilots, and a man who’s service career was as tumultous as the times in which it took place. Arnold literally learned to fly from the Wright Brothers—but lived, barely, to see into being a force of jet bombers carrying nuclear weapons.
“In The Best Families” by Rex Stout (1950) Stout’s Nero Wolfe private eye is forced to make his most unthinkable private sacrifice when he takes on a case that some powerful people want him to drop. Naturally, the heavy lifting and action falls, more than ever, to his wisecracking sidekick, Archie Goodwin.
“The English Spy” by Daniel Silva (2015) Israeli superspy Gabriel Allon belongs in the pantheon of literary secret agents like Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan and James Bond, but has more in common with the likes of Quiller, George Smiley or “November Man”, in that he’s complicated and self-tortured. Silva keeps the Allon series interesting by having his protagonist work all around the world, sometimes on “loan” from the Israelis to allies like the UK and US, as is the case here.
“Banker” by Dick Francis (1982) When you write decades of mysteries centered on horse-racing, you’re apt to run out of novel plot ideas. But don’t worry, it doesn’t happen here. When a rising star in the investment banking world arranges financing for a winning racehorse, he’s forced to save his career and his life by finding out why the investment has gone so, so horribly bad.
“The Sword and The Shield” by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (1999) Mitrokhin makes a Cold War career out of working in Soviet intelligence, while painstakingly copying KGB files on just about everything, hiding them, and then packing them up and defecting. This book is the publicly know result, but you can imagine what his notes must’ve meant to the spy games themselves.
“The Scorpion Signal” by Adam Hall (1980) Hall’s “Quiller” character is a spy progenitor of the above-mentioned Gabriel Allon. Quiller has just completed a grueling assignment, is feeling burnt-out, and then gets shoved back into the field before he’s ready. He has to find another British operative who’s disappeared. But finding him turns out to be very bad news. I love the Quiller series, and think it’s really underrated. This is one of the best of them. You can’t put it down.
“The Darkest Evening of the Year” by Dean Koontz (2007) From the first page, he’s written a fast-mover whose protagonist is a rescuer of Golden Retrievers. These dogs have secrets, but so does she.
“The Mask of Fu Manchu” by Sax Rohmer (1932) Rohmer’s series about “supermind” villain Dr. Fu Manchu is exactly the kind of thing the cancel mob loves: a dated, politically-incorrect depiction of ethnicity and race. They reflect the era in which they were written, but if that’s going to bother you, avoid these books. Otherwise, if you like intricately plotted, incredibly imaginative short espionage novels (and how could you not?), this series of books is a hidden gem.
As always: please let me know if you read any of these, and what you think. And please let me know what you’re reading!